NEW YORK -- A proposal to change long-standing federal policy and deny citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants on U.S. soil ran aground this month in Congress, but it is sure to resurface -- kindling bitter debate even if it fails to become law.
At issue is "birthright citizenship" -- provided for since the Constitution's 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868.
Section 1 of that amendment, drafted with freed slaves in mind, says: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
Some conservatives in Congress, as well as advocacy groups seeking to crack down on illegal immigration, say the amendment has been misapplied over the years, that it was never intended to grant citizenship automatically to babies of illegal immigrants. Thus they contend that federal legislation, rather than a difficult-to-achieve constitutional amendment, would be sufficient to end birthright citizenship.
With more than 70 co-sponsors, Georgia Republican Rep. Nathan Deal tried to include a revocation of birthright citizenship in an immigration bill passed by the House in mid-December. GOP House leaders did not let the proposal come to a vote.
"Most Americans feel it doesn't make any sense for people to come into the country illegally, give birth and have a new U.S. citizen," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which backs Deal's proposal. "But the advocates for illegal immigrants will make a fuss; they'll claim you're punishing the children, and I suspect the leadership doesn't want to deal with that."
Deal has said he will continue pushing the issue, describing birthright citizenship as "a huge magnet" attracting illegal immigrants. He cited estimates -- challenged by immigrant advocates -- that roughly 10 percent of births in the United States, or close to 400,000 a year, are babies born to illegal immigrants.
"It's an issue that we are very concerned about," said Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization that opposes any effort to revoke birthright citizenship.
"This was always seen in the past as some extreme, wacko proposal that never goes anywhere," she said. "But these so-called wacko proposals are becoming more and more mainstream -- it's becoming more acceptable to have a discussion about it."
Alvaro Huerta of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles said his organization opposes Deal's proposal and is girding for a battle for public opinion.
"This is red meat for conservatives," he said. "They throw out these issues they know aren't winning issues, and they create an environment of anti-immigrant sentiment. We need to do better job of educating people why it's wrong."
According to a survey last month by Rasmussen Reports, a nonpartisan public opinion research firm, 49 percent of Americans favor ending birthright citizenship, and 41 percent favor keeping it. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a leading proponent of tougher measures to stop illegal immigration, believes public opinion could shift further in favor of Deal's measure.
"Any issue that has a 'damn right' response, you can go with," Tancredo said. "You ask if we should stop illegal immigrants from coming onto this country and having a baby here who is an American citizen, and most people say, 'Damn right."'
However, Tancredo acknowledged that Deal's measure faces major obstacles. Though he believes the House GOP leadership will eventually allow the proposal to come to a vote, Tancredo said it could flounder in the Senate or draw a veto from President Bush, who has sought to steer a middle course on some immigration issues.
The best strategy, Tancredo suggested, might be to avoid presenting the measure as a separate, stand-alone bill and instead add it to a broader piece of legislation that the Senate could not disregard.
Tancredo, Deal and others have noted that the United States is among the relatively few wealthy nations that allow birthright citizenship.
However, Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants' Rights Project, said some Western European nations with different policies have suffered problems.
"Look at Germany -- the children of guest workers are not citizens," he said. "That creates enormous social and racial tensions. That's the opposite of where we want to go."
Guttentag also said the federal courts would probably strike down any measure that challenged the 14th Amendment's citizenship guarantees.
"It's a far-fetched, fundamentally misguided and unconstitutional proposal," he said. "It's not the kind of proposal that gets taken seriously by those who actually want to grapple with immigration issues."
Some critics of current policy refer to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants as "anchor babies" because -- when they reach adulthood -- they can sponsor their parents for legal permanent residency. Immigrants-rights groups say the number of such cases is smaller than critics allege, but authoritative statistics are scarce.